A fun way to learn to focus

When we sit in meditation, the untrained mind naturally runs amok. No fault there. We live in a culture of constant distraction and short attention span. The mind, even in silence, gets caught up in thinking or gets lost in a fog. Cultivating inner calm, ease and balance, we become better able to focus on one object, like the breath rising and falling. We create a spaciousness that lets us befriend what arises without engaging with it.following-thoughts-bench

Imagine sitting on a park bench on a pleasant spring day. All manner of people pass by and you not

ice them, maybe smile at them, but you don’t rush up to them and have a conversation, do you? That’s a skillful way to be with all the sensations, thoughts and emotions that pass through your inner ‘park’, that compassionate field of awareness in your meditation practice. How nice!
But, because, being human, we have lots of opinions and preferences, we may find certain people passing by our park bench grab our attention in various ways:

  • Perhaps there’s an attractive person we’d like to get to know. Or we see an ice cream vendor and suddenly we’re salivating, even though we weren’t the least bit hungry. Maybe we find this moment so extraordinarily pleasant that we never want it to change, We think, ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’
  • Perhaps someone walks by smoking and now the air is full of a foul smell. Or someone looks evil and we imagine horrible things they may have done. Or someone’s wearing an outfit that just doesn’t work – ‘What were they thinking?’ Or we wish the park bench was better positioned so we could see both the pond and the rose garden. If only that tree was a little to the left, then it would be SO much better.
  • Perhaps, even with all that’s going on around us, we get lost in a fog, and only after an unknown period of time do we notice again where we are and what’s going on. But then we’re lost in the fog again.
  • Perhaps a band of pranksters come along and lure us away from the bench entirely. We get swept up in their big to do, and it all seems so much more interesting than sitting on that boring old bench. They can magically travel into the past and the future! Why wouldn’t we hang out with them? But finding ourselves swept away, there’s also a sense of feeling lost and worried. Where is that park bench? Where is the park? Where the heck are we?
  • Perhaps we’re concerned because we’re not sure if we’re allowed to sit on this bench. Is this a private park? Do we need an invitation? Are people looking at us as if we don’t belong? And if we are allowed, is this really a good thing to do?

What I have just described in that park scenario are the Buddha’s Five Hindrances: craving, aversion, torpor, restlessness and doubt. What are they hindering? They hinder our capacity to focus, to concentrate and to awaken. Let’s look at them one by one. These emojis I created for an exercise we did in class to help recognize and remember these Hindrances. craving-green

Craving

Whether we crave sweets, sex, adventure, love, power or something else, that grip of craving throws us off-balance. We’re leaning into longing, missing what’s here and now.
Craving can be a specific physical addiction, but it is more universal than that. It’s like a dangling fishing lure that we keep leaping after, only to discover the pain of the hook. Even when we enjoy getting what we had craved, there’s an edge to that enjoyment because now we fear losing it. Clinging and craving go hand in hand. Even if we feel we have come to terms with the nature of impermanence, we hope against all reason that the rules don’t apply to us.

aversion-red

Aversion
Hatred is the most virulent form of aversion, and the one that causes mental blindness. This ‘blind rage’ sabotages any possibility of happiness. The mental knots of grudges and pet peeves we’ve been exploring recently, that entangle our thoughts and emotions in misery of our own making, are also aversion. As is the habit of fault-finding. How often have you been enjoying an experience but found some way in which it would be even better?torpor-face

Torpor

This is a kind of mental malaise, a state of fogginess, a ‘huh?’ quality, as if we’re just floating along mindlessly, not really living. There could be a physical component to this, when there’s a sluggishness in the body that is not just needing to rest after being active but an ongoing state of lethargy.restlessness

Restlessness

The restless mind has difficulty settling down and focusing on this moment. It is always leaping to the next thing on the calendar or to do list, or solving a problem or planning an event or a creative project. Worry and anxiety can arise here as well. The restless mind is everywhere but here and now.doubt

Doubt

This is not the healthy questioning that is an intrinsic part of our insight meditation practice where we ask ‘Is this true?’ This is a sneaky self-sabotaging doubt: Doubting that we can meditate or do whatever task we set ourselves. It’s also the doubt that our wise effort will be rewarded. Doubt may arise about the value of the practice and teachings, even though we have experienced their benefits. It’s the belief that somehow we are uniquely unqualified to awaken.

In class we did a practice of sitting as we would in regular meditation, but instead of just sitting on our metaphorical park bench and feeling friendly toward all that passes by, we made a point of identifying them as one or another of these Hindrances. I gave each student a sheet of Five Hindrance emojis in a pie chart, and every time a thought or emotion arose they were to make a mark in the section of the Hindrance where it best fit.
Contact me if you would like to get a downloadable PDF of this exercise sheet.
Please note that we are not categorizing or labeling ourselves. We are looking at thoughts passing through and categorizing them. If we find that most of our marks are in one area, say ‘aversion’, it would be counterproductive to label ourselves an ‘aversive personality’. In the Buddhist tradition, we are letting go of as many labels as we can, not adding more. So, watch for the all-too pervasive mental habit of labeling yourself, and resist!
Coming into Skillful Relationship with the Hindrances
Noticing these five hindrances as they arise in our experience is the first step, but how do we disengage from them? First and foremost, we don’t make enemies of them. That’s just aversion, one of the hindrances! Instead, we recognize their intention to improve things for us. They are patterns developed to ‘save us from ourselves’ in some way. But because they are based in fear and are myopic and misguided, we lovingly and respectfully cultivate enough space for them to exist without feeling we need to adhere to their plans for us, many of which are cockamamie schemes. We remind ourselves that they are not the bosses of us! As we practice, our own quiet inner wisdom can be heard and appreciated. We develop the ability to see the Hindrances for what they are and see that we have the choice not to succumb or engage in them.

We can develop some phrase to use in that moment of recognition that will bring us back to the moment in a skillful way. Your own inner wisdom will have the best phrase, but here are some ideas to get you started. Just be sure they are wise speech: kind, true, timely and not scolding.
Craving: This moment is enough.
Notice all that is arising in this moment to fully engage all the senses. Take sensory pleasure in the feel of your tongue in your mouth, the air on your skin, the light on your eyelids, etc. It was only ever not enough because you weren’t paying full attention.
Aversion: This too shall pass.
Remembering the nature of impermanence helps to ameliorate momentary annoyances. But a deeper practice of coming fully into the senses and thinking of whatever arises as part of this unique moment’s ‘symphony of now.’
For aversion that wants to makeover everything, the study of wabi sabi, where we are encouraged to find the beauty in all phases of life, not just some ‘perfect’ moment, like a flower at the peak of its bloom. How much richer life is when we expand our appreciation to include the beauty of wrinkles! Once you understand the concept, you can answer aversive thoughts with a whisper of ‘wabi sabi’.
Restlessness: This moment matters.
Gently and repeatedly bring the mind back to the here and now from wherever it wanders. In class I found myself almost in tears in defense of this moment, so often ignored. Poor little thing. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Especially when you consider that it’s the only moment that exists! All other moments are memory or imagining.

If worry is involved, you might bring out your inner Doris Day and remember ‘Que sera, sera – what will be will be.’
If anxiety is present, one student mentioned the skillfulness of switching out the word ‘anxiety’ for ‘energy’ and then asking, ‘How is this energy benefiting me?’ and other skillful inquiries. And again, letting go of the habit of labeling yourself ‘an anxious person.’
Doubt
I can do this.
I am worthy.
I have a seat at the table of life guaranteed by having been born.
You are not uniquely deficient in whatever qualities are needed to meditate or undertake other activities. And you deserve this! If you think you don’t you might use the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river.’ as a chant. It can release any sense of feeling unacceptable. Also, make a habit of sending yourself infinite loving kindness — May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy. — or other supportive loving phrases.
If you are doubting the value of the practice or the teachings, find examples in your own life, or if you’re very new to the practice, in the lives of people you know, where meditation and the dharma have been of value. If you feel you haven’t achieved enough, let go of any sense of a time frame or progress chart. That’s just more self-sabotage.
Torpor
Here and now. Wake up! This moment is worthy of my attention.
To keep your attention present, you might give yourself extra sensory stimuli: Wiggle your toes, rub your fingers together, or some other small but effective way to maintain present attention. Encourage the mind to be curious about all that is arising in this moment in the field of sensation. Question your desire to escape.
With this look at the Five Hindrances, we have launched our exploration of Concentration, the next Factor of Awakening. I hope you have found this an interesting way to look at your busy thoughts. I appreciate your comments.

Blindspotting, Leave No Trace, Pachinko and Less

blindspottingA brief break in my teaching schedule gives me an opportunity to write about something I’ve become aware of in the movies and books I’ve seen and read recently. While I watch and read for enjoyment with hopefully no agenda, upon reflection I may notice a common thread being explored, and wisdom being shared.

First, let me say how fortunate we are that even in the summer, traditionally reserved for movies full of car chases, monsters, aliens, zombies and assorted ‘bad guys’, there are brilliant films like Blindspotting and Leave No Trace. (And these aren’t the only quality films out right now!)

As for reading, I just finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and have started reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer. (I promised myself I would give bestsellers a chance, so have been requesting them at the library.)

What is the common thread? All of these works provide insight into the life and culture of people who are living in fear. The father in Leave No Trace is dealing with PTSD, needing to take care of himself and his daughter as best he can. The daughter is fearful for her father, afraid of losing him, and at the same time afraid of being kept from the natural venturing forth into the world that is part of coming of age. It’s impossible not to feel great compassion for both these characters and to want the best for them. But what is best? Given his inability to stay indoors or lead a life that would allow her what she needs, there is no easy answer.

In Blindspotting, the fear is palpable as we enter the life of a young Oakland man, who has turned his life around and is days from being done with probation, if he can just steer clear of trouble. Because he is so personable, I found myself tense and anxious, as his very ordinary working life seemed full of perils. I was invested in his not just staying free but staying alive, as the fear of police — a fear made reasonable by an incident he witnesses at close hand early in the film, as well as so many police shootings that we’re all aware of — becomes a presence throughout the film. Remaining free and alive is especially challenging when his oldest closest friend seems to stir up trouble wherever he goes. The mother in me wanted to shout ‘Steer clear of this guy! He’s trouble!’ With the pale skin of the dominant culture, the friend is unencumbered by the fear of police profiling, and seems oblivious to the danger he puts his friend in with his behavior. But he feels he has something to prove. Having grown up in a predominately African-American neighborhood, he has adapted by adopting, to absurd extremes, the trappings of the culture of the ‘hood. Without that identity, who would he be? Would he disappear? That’s a core fear for many of us who feel we need to promote a ‘self’ to be seen, respected and loved.

In the multi-generational novel
Pachinko, the characters are mostly Koreans who live in Japan where being Korean is socially and legally challenging. They fear being sent back to Korea, not being accepted in Japan, and not being able to make a decent life through the fruits of their labor. The descendants of Korean immigrants, though born in Japan, are not Japanese citizens. Instead, on their fourteenth birthdays, they are required to get fingerprinted and apply to stay in the country for three more years. A naturalization process is possible, though difficult, but the discrimination is still a huge issue. There are a lot of explorations of identity as well, and the intrinsic fear causes much heartache.

In the novel Less, about an aging gay author embarking on a trip around the world, I am only a few chapters in, but on page 45 I find this:

“Name a day, name an hour, in which Arthur Less was not afraid. Of ordering a cocktail, taking a taxi, teaching a class, writing a book. Afraid of these and almost everything else in the world.”

What a gift these films and novels provide! We can recognize the universality of humanity. If any of us were in any of these situations, given all the causes and conditions these characters experienced, we would fear what they fear and very likely react as they do.
Whether it’s a veteran father with PTSD, a daughter who wants to be with her father but also wants to live a normal life, a young black man trying to get his life back on track, a young white man grappling with his identity, a gay author feeling like he’s failing, or anyone living as a minority in a culture that belittles and excludes them, there is so much room for us to deepen our own understanding and compassion.

We might ask ourselves:

  • Where do I feel fear arising?

  • How is that fear playing out in my life?

  • Where might I be causing those feelings in others?

  • Can I be compassionate with myself, while gently relaxing and releasing fear?


And we might encourage filmmakers and writers to continue making movies and novels that both entertain and challenge us! Hooray!

Beyond meditation :: Doors to tranquility

 

marita-king-swans

Photo by my friend Marita King who says this is where she finds tranquility.

 

In our ongoing exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we’ve been looking at the factor of Tranquility, which sounds heavenly but can be elusive. In this post I will share a list of  easy ways we can access tranquility.

How we think about tranquility can get in the way of experiencing it. For example, tranquility is not about having everything under control. It is more like being able to rest at ease in a sea of uncertainty. That’s quite a shift of mindset! When we think everything has to be ‘just so’ in order to ‘get to’ tranquility, we never get there. In the first place, life’s not like that, is it? But also, our belief that tranquility is a place to get to or something to achieve sabotages us. We get stuck in an ‘if only’ state of mind, wishing for a fantasy idea of a tropical vacation that’s going to deliver us ready-made peace of mind. Tranquility is cultivated in life just the way it is, as we soften the way we are in relationship to all that arises.

We have been exploring those mental knots that continually cause us trouble, like long-held grudges and pet peeves. One of my students just sent me a fascinating article on the science of grudges, with a focus on revenge and resulting feud mentality. Revenge? Feuds? Yikes! I had not even thought about that. But ultimately, the article says, it’s best to just get over the grudge. So that leads us back to where we are in our practice, noticing when grudges exist, questioning if they still have any basis in fact or serve us in any way, and then gently releasing them, as possible.

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you may notice that I often put concepts into visual metaphors — the idea of grudges as a type of ‘tangled knot’, for example. But then the metaphors can expand and shift for me. So now in our inner mental landscapes, these tight knots can feel so solid that they form the land itself. This is distinctly different from the storms of thoughts that pass through our mind as we cope with current challenges — event planning, problem solving, etc.

Though these passing storms are not knots that need to be untangled, we might notice how the inner landscape of accumulated knots shapes the storms, perhaps making them more frequent or intense. So as you notice and gently release the tight tangle of long-held angry feelings, you may discover that passing inner storms fall less heavily upon you. Causes and conditions have not changed. But you have softened the lay of your inner landscape.

Have you been noticing your pet peeves and grudges? I continue to be surprised at my own. Some are easy to assess and release just by thinking about them and seeing that, though I was upset at first, on reflection things turned out for the best. If we don’t notice and question our grudges, how would we realize when that’s true?

It seems that when we make a point of practicing anything, the subconscious offers up clues, perhaps in our dreams. For example, this week I had a dream about my maternal grandmother who died over fifty years ago. I’ll spare you the details, but the memorable feature was her face looking at me with the warmest loving smile, her eyes twinkling. This was particularly memorable because it’s not at all how I remember her. And thinking of her, I realized I have a huge old grudge against her!

You be the judge of the grudge: One time when I was fourteen I was drawing and she took my art without asking, erased parts and ‘corrected’ it. I’ve held that grudge for most of my life! Good grief.

Clearly, although she was a talented artist, she was not a particularly skillful arts educator. So what? The very thought that any of my grandchildren would hold a grudge against me for one of my unskillful moments breaks my heart. So I will see if I can attach that warm twinkling-eyed smile to my memory of her, and let the grudge go. Again, I’m not making light of it or pushing it away; just acknowledging and looking at all sides of it with as much compassion as possible.

 

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Doors to Tranquility
Now onto sharing some of the many ways we can bring tranquility into our lives beyond our regular meditation practice. A little caveat: Any of these could be done with a frenzied aggressive mind and would not result in tranquility. So clearly something is required of us. The expression ‘you can take the horse to water but you can’t make him drink’ applies. We can provide ourselves with the nourishment of tranquility, but our mind needs to open to it, receive it and welcome it in a gentle way. If we pursue it ambitiously to accomplish something, or if we rush through it in order to get to the rest of our day, then we are like horses who gallop through the river rather than drink from it.

I am referring to these ways of accessing tranquility as ‘doors’. And if they are doors, then the universal key to all of them is through the senses. We learn how to attend the senses through meditation. None of these doors replace our regular practice, but they offer other opportunities to weave tranquility into our lives.

The Nature Door
Being in nature, unplugged, fully present and engaged with all the senses. This can be a walk in a forest, sitting on the beach listening to the waves, looking out the window at a bird, lizard or squirrel, or even a spider on the wall.

Let go of all thoughts, plans and goals of getting anywhere or accomplishing anything, like learning the names we have applied to what you are seeing. The deeper you go in nature, especially if you don’t get cell phone reception and no one expects anything of you, the more engaged you will probably be. Can you discover that you are nature too? There’s a great release in that, when we recognize that nature is not everything except us, but us too.

If this is a door that appeals to you, I highly recommend the teachings of Mark Coleman, an insight meditation teacher who wrote a wonderful book Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery.

If you like to hike in a group, consider agreeing to do at least a section of the hike in solo silence. Years ago a small group of us formed what we called a Spirit Hike, where we would walk and talk for awhile, and then when we got to the deepest part of nature, the appointed leader would have us stop and space ourselves at least thirty feet apart to proceed walking in silence for at least twenty minutes, each of us having our own private communion with nature. Then we would gather and begin to talk again, but the quality and rhythm of that conversation was so different, so much deeper, so much more connected, and tranquil.

The Mindful Movement Door
Many people exercise with the goal of becoming more fit. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s a missed opportunity to develop mindfulness and cultivate tranquility in the process. Any exercise can be done in a meditative sensory-aware way, letting go of extraneous thoughts and goals; but certain movement traditions are based in mindfulness, like yoga, tai chi, chi gong and many others.

The Arts Door
Any of the arts can be an entry point to tranquility, again depending on how you go about it. Listening to music that is soothing, of course, can attune our minds to tranquility. I imagine playing an instrument, if you are not caught up in demanding perfection but just being with the experience, could cultivate tranquility. Singing in a group or solo could bring tranquility. There’s something so nourishing for the soul to join a choir, for example.

Creating visual art without trying to achieve anything would do the same. And dancing, where it’s just your body responding to the music, can certainly be soothing. And then there’s creative writing, especially poetry. Writing can be a very left brain activity, reporting factual information, but when the right brain gets activated, a sense of tranquility can result.

Entering a museum or gallery space can shift the mind into a spacious receptive state. Many people find that while it’s pleasant to view art with others, it’s especially rich to give yourself the time and space to go at your own pace, lingering at any piece that draws you.

The Ritual Door
Personal ritual, where you, for example, brew and sip a cup of tea with mindfulness, is a way to cultivate tranquility. You can do this with any aspect of your life: Bathing, dressing, cleaning the house, organizing, reading inspirational words, playing with or reading to a child. The list is endless because anything can become a ritual, not because it is repeated but because it is done with mindfulness and loving-kindness, given whatever time it takes to do it.

The Chore Door
If you life is full to the brim with commitments and appointments, then it may seem all very nice but near impossible to find tranquility. But begin where you are. Take that next commitment or appointment and be fully present for it. Be fully present as you go wherever you need to go, not plotting and planning but just driving or walking in a mindful way. This will prepare you for wherever you are going because it will help develop the habit of being present.

The Ethics Door
It’s near to impossible to be tranquil if you are in a state of regret for unskillful words and behavior, or are unclear what is and what isn’t skillful. In Buddhism, there are the precepts of non-harming that make choices clearer, as well as the Noble Eightfold Path which offers insight into where the quandary might have arisen. When we live in a way that is kind to ourselves and all beings, tranquility follows.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to enter into tranquility. But the most important part is to incorporate it into your life in every moment rather than thinking of it as an escape from a frenzied reality.

Doors to Ignore
As mentioned in the beginning of this list, the key to all the doors to tranquility is the senses. When you pay attention to physical sensation, not only does it center you to be receptive to tranquility-producing experiences, it also helps you to recognize when you have opened a door that will take you far from tranquility. This might be entertainment full of violence and horror, scaring you senseless or making blood and gore seem normal. When you notice extreme tension, an adrenaline rush, your heart leaping, you can remind yourself that this is pulling you away from any possibility of cultivating tranquility. And, if you’re really paying attention, you might notice the rippling effects of exposing yourself to such things.

This is not to put up a wall between ourselves and the world we live in or turn a blind eye to what goes on. It is to question the value of finding entertainment there, so that our hearts are more able to be compassionate and recognize the nature of suffering.

Are there are doors you have found to tranquility? Perhaps stroking the fur of your beloved pet? Whatever door you find, keep it as a presence in your life, not some distant destination, always on the horizon, that you’ll get to when you’ve got the time.

Make the time right now. Open the door!

When things fall apart

hurricane“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
– W. B. Yeats, ‘Second Coming’

Even when our personal lives are satisfactory, many of us are deeply stressed by the current state of the world. If this is your experience, you may find it challenging to be tranquil in the midst of it all. And perhaps you don’t feel it’s right to cultivate tranquility when so much in the world is so wrong. You believe times like these call for action, not ‘navel gazing’.

But where does wise action come from? If things are falling apart and the center cannot hold, doesn’t it make sense to center ourselves?  Cultivating tranquility assures a better chance to be wiser and kinder in our choices, actions and words.

From that tranquil center arises gratitude for being alive to do even the hardest work. It provides clarity to see our purpose, where we can help and where we can remember that ‘it’s not all up to me.’ We can find true forgiveness for our own failings as well as for the misguided words and behaviors of others. We may discover a sense of deep connection to all beings of all species of all eras. That connection can provide additional support and meaning to our efforts. When tranquility is discovered and nourished through sitting in silence, then loving-kindness for ourselves and all beings blossoms forth into wise and skillful interaction.

And we are much less likely to succumb to despair.
My mother was a lifelong peace-worker, and on occasion she would fall into despair, especially in her later years when she could look back on all her efforts and judge them a failure, as it seemed the world was no closer to peace than it had ever been. It was hard to scrape herself off the floor and begin again. She had great strength but it was borne of pure will. She would give herself a good talking to and began again. She had the grit we Americans admire, but grit can only take us so far, and it rubs us raw in the process. Knowing how things ‘should’ be, and feeling we ‘should’ be able to solve every problem, entangles us in a deepening misery of fault-finding. This wasn’t commonly understood when she was alive. Meditation wasn’t a common practice and the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ had not come into common parlance.

I believe if she had lived long enough to learn about and try the skillful techniques to cultivate an inner strength that doesn’t rely on teeth-clenching determination to sustain her noble commitment, she would have been less likely to fall into despair.

When she died on ‘March Forth’ 1989, I had a year of magical thinking, a gift of the unbearable grief I experienced. In my mind, my mother, once freed from the limits of embodiment – get this! – single-handedly tore down the Berlin Wall, ended apartheid in South Africa, inspired over a million Chinese to demonstrate for democracy in Tienanmen Square, ended heavy-handed communist rule in various eastern European countries, etc. etc.

But even with that great post-life work, she might have despaired. After all, if she was doing all that, couldn’t she have stopped the earthquake that devastated her beloved Bay Area? Couldn’t she, with her love of oceans and marine life, have taken a moment to prevent the Exxon Valdez oil spill? That sense of despair, familiar to us all at times, comes from the belief that perfection is possible, and that anything in life can be permanent. J. R. R. Tolkien is quoted as saying, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.

This is such an important thing to remember. We don’t know! Tranquility is possible if we can acknowledge that simple fact. Our inherent negativity bias makes us more inclined to think the worst is coming, and it’s enforced by the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mentality of the news. But the news only shares the events that stand out because they are unusual. That means that most of everything that is going on in the daily life of most people is at least tolerable, and likely to contain moments of laughter and contentment.

Even when it seems that politicians are up to their gills in debt to interests not aligned with the public good and are only skilled at lying, we discover newer faces on the scene, with clearer kinder vision and a way of bridging the great divides between us.

There’s a Buddhist expression ‘No mud, no lotus.’ In the context of the current political shenanigans, we might open to the possibility that out of this period of mud-slinging, goodness is also arising. These newcomer candidates would likely not have been inspired to run if they thought everything was going along just fine without them. And if we were satisfied with the status quo, would we be so inspired to support them, to volunteer to get out the vote and spread the word? Probably not.

With so much we don’t know, one thing we can be sure of is that change is the only constant. Can we center ourselves and open our arms to embrace the ever-changing nature of life? It is possible to experience tranquility even in the midst of tumultuous events, seasons, power, politics, cultural favor, etc. The Eight Worldly Winds are always blowing: Gain and Loss, Pleasure and Pain, Praise and Blame, Fame and Censure. As long as we are alive, the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows are the gift and the challenge of earthly life. Why rail against it? Why make an enemy of it? Why add to the suffering? If we cultivate tranquility at the center of our being and operate from that place of calm inner strength, we can not only nourish ourselves but all life. We can be a light in the darkness, joining together with a whole world of others who are centered in tranquility and cultivating wisdom.

 

Tranquility is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening, and spending time with it has been a very rich experience for me. A few posts back we looked at ‘grudges, pet peeves and other mental knots’. Since then I have continued to notice my grudges when they come up, and I’m finding an unexpected increase in my capacity for compassion, forgiveness and letting go. It’s as if I’m a snake in molting season. Letting go, letting go, letting go. What a great unburdening!

Yesterday I was in the grocery store parking lot and saw the car of the tech who many many years ago ‘fixed’ my computer, and in the process made it unusable, leading to a whole slew of painfully expensive solutions. For the past twenty years whenever I saw that car, my mind would get caught up in that tangled knot of blame. Grrrr. This time I felt the rise of that knot again, so I paused and sat with the grudge for a moment. Just then the ‘fixer’ came out of the grocery store and got in the car. Oh my, how that person had aged. I felt compassion. And in that feeling compassion, the knot untangled more and dissolved. How could I hold a grudge against someone for so long? Someone who was, after all, just trying to help, even if it turned out not to be very helpful? Have I never made mistakes? Ha! Of course I have. Plenty of them! As have we all, even though we do our best not to. What a lovely release I experienced. And I expect there will be many more.

Who in your life entangles you in knots? Is there room for forgiveness? Not forcing anything, but just making room for the possibility? Are there some assumptions you’ve been clinging to that are in need of questioning – Is this true? How do I know this is true?

Tranquility arises from compassion, forgiveness and letting go. The tranquility, in turn, births skillful words and actions. Even, or perhaps especially, when it seems things are falling apart.

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?