Caught up in an internal windstorm?

windstormEach moment of each day teaches us something new about how to be in relationship with life. So many opportunities to see, for example, fear arising to tear things apart, and love arising to bring seemingly disparate hearts together.

Our practice is to live our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and others. To be present and compassionate with whatever arises, giving it space to transform, allowing ourselves to let it be, and to be enriched, informed and enlivened by the experience of even the most difficult emotions and experiences passing through our field of awareness.

Can we engage in the dance of life without getting entangled, strangled, or wanting to strangle? Can we allow ourselves to befriend even that irritant that torments us? We can if we can see it for what it is.

Over the past weeks in my life there seems to be a roller coaster of new sometimes scary and sometimes jubilant information coming in, all tied up in deep fraternal love (and annoyance and petulance — oh yeah, it’s all still there!) Here is the challenge my meditation practice has primed me to handle with equaniminity. Somehow I pictured equanimity differently, but hey, letting go of self-judgment for taking the bait, taking the low road is part of the process. Remembering to take time off, to unplug, to keep up my dependable practices that sustain me: that’s how equanimity looks in this moment.

Recently we have had so much windy weather. Gales really. I wonder is that normal for June? Is this the new normal? Anxiety sets in. I loath wind! Oh yes, I get grumpy, and the seemingly endless wind has been the convenient target for all my worry and discontent. ‘If only’ the wind would stop howling, then I could be happy. And eventually it did, and I was in fact somewhat relieved to fling open the doors and enjoy the still air and bird song. Ah!

Then I went to my poetry class and, wouldn’t you know it, the teacher played a recording of howling wind. She said wind is her favorite element. She should live at my house! Grrr. Because the speakers were right behind me, the wind was blowing in both ears and down my neck, tensing my body…again! She had us sit in meditation with the wind for a bit. So what choice did I have but to recognize the opportunity to do a little inquiry into my tormented relationship to wind?

Then she read something that has stayed with me: ‘It is not the wind that makes noise, but the objects in its way.’ And I heard it this way: It is not the wind that makes noise, but all that resists it.

Hmm. Is that true? How do I know that’s true? The wind pushes the objects. The objects move and make sound vibrations. The wind that meets no resistance is not howling, but perhaps dancing. Hmm. Bah, humbug. Sounds like a fairy tale, just making excuses. But this is the practice. So I continue.

Having made a kind of enemy of the wind, there are many other questions I could explore that might be helpful, scientific, philosophical and psychological: How does air become wind? What is the value of wind? What would life be like without wind? Is it really the wind I am upset with?

This kind of investigation is useful when we see we have made an enemy out of anything: a person, group, situation, condition or in this case an element. We might practice loving-kindness, sending metta. Inquiry might also be helpful when we meet a lot of inner resistance, and our offerings are grudging at best.

If we really pay attention we can see how we may make enemies everywhere. It is not to torment us that the enemy arises. It is to challenge us to practice opening our hearts and minds, befriending when we are able, doing inquiry when we are not, and eventually finding the door through the heart of the ‘enemy’ to the truth of our experience.

This truth, or dharma, is the fruit of our practice. We find it by being present and compassionate. It brings a quiet balanced joy that allows us to dance with even the most tumultuous chaos.

In this week’s meditation class I shared an extended passage from the book Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh, that, due to copyright laws, I can’t share here. But I highly recommend the book. Then we did a valuable exercise, walking in nature, inspired by the sharing. I encourage you to walk mindfully in nature and find something of interest to linger upon. See what happens! Be open to nature’s wisdom.

And if you find yourself in a windstorm, emotional or otherwise, rely on your daily practice discovering your own inner wisdom, the wisdom teachings and your fellow practitioners. This is called taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

What’s in a Name?

Lately I’ve been noticing how often people call themselves names: ‘stupid’ or “idiot”; or they describe themselves as ‘technologically challenged’ or ‘anal’, etc. They may start sentences with ‘I’m the kind of person who…’

What’s wrong with that? This is such a common human thing to do that it doesn’t seem problematic on the surface. Self-effacement is socially acceptable and even encouraged, unlike boasting, a sure way to lose friends. The boaster puffs up their personal identity in order to be admired, respected and safe. The person whose words are self-diminishing has a different strategy for self-protection: Perhaps to lower expectations? To put themselves down before someone else does? To gain sympathy? Not all the motivations have to do with impact on others. And probably only a small percentage of the put downs are said out loud.  Both the people who boast and the people who put themselves down may feel they are simply stating truth, seeing themselves ‘realistically’. Is that true? Or is it selective observation at best and distortion at worst?

As we practice mindfulness and become increasingly present in our experience, we can see how these autopilot statements lock us into a very limited sense of self. The words form a false construct — a painted shell — that camouflages our authentic being, disconnects us, and prohibits true engagement in life.

It is a good practice to listen for our own self-defining statements and to question them when they arise. This isn’t judging them, but seeing them clearly, questioning their veracity and motivation. In the last post, I talked about the faulty filter of fear. Can we see these ways we define ourselves as a part of that filter? If we say ‘I’m such an idiot’, there is clearly at least one if not a series of painful past experiences that bring us to this conclusion. It’s worth revisiting that past and investigating: Were we called a name by someone who was afraid in their own lives? We may doubt that the original voice of that name-calling was afraid, but what healthy happy person with no ax to grind goes around calling anyone an idiot? People who put others down are acting out their own unhappiness and insecurities.

Many of us over-manage our image like hyper-zealous stage mothers. And our running commentary gets in the way of people seeing us clearly. If this sounds at all familiar, are you ready for a little challenge?

Challenge

  1. Stop describing yourself to others! There’s no need to explain yourself. You may have your opinions, but let others draw their own. Live your life with wise loving intention and effort, and let the rest go.
  2. Pay attention to the unspoken but oft-repeated negative names you may call yourself. If you find one or more, take time to investigate, preferably after meditation, to find the source. Question the veracity with awareness and compassion. For example, you repeatedly call yourself ‘stupid’, you might think of times when you were smart.

veil-3

 

Exercise

Occasionally in class I share this exercise I created almost thirty years ago, when I was teaching meditation, but before I began studying and practicing Buddhism. It’s called ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’. If you’ve been following along the posts in this blog, you might see a correlation between the veils this week and the filters from last week. Clarifying our view of the world and ourselves is an ongoing valuable part of our practice. And as always, we’re simply noticing how we are in relationship to all aspects of our experience, not trying to push them away or change them. Try this exercise after at least a few minutes of meditation.
‘Dance of the Seven Veils, an Exercise in Letting Go’
by Stephanie Noble

Here’s a written version, in case you can’t play it, or just want to review:

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. Think of your home, your furnishings, your clothes, your vehicle — all the choices you have made that tell people who you are.

To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements and your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. Woven into this veil are the titles you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the pain you have caused, the guilt you bear, the struggles you have gone through. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationship with others. See the threads of your various roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, teacher, co-worker, employee, employer and citizen. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs, how you have woven together your religion, your spiritual beliefs, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, and your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fifth veil is all the aspects of you that you were born with: Gender, ethnicity, ancestry, physical features, and the most fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your perception of your body as isolated and your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.

Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind, consciousness. It is the you that maintains resistance in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

The seven veils drift to the floor. For this brief moment, allow yourself to shine free of them.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are one with all that is, an expression of the joy of oneness. You are undefined thus unconfined and expansive without limits. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment. Rest in this joyous light being.

Now you can dress in the veils. Take your time to take on each one as a light sheer manifest expression of being alive in this place and time:

This separate seeming consciousness — now lighter, sheerer, a softer way of being in the world.

This separate seeming body — now lighter, sheerer, able to dance with this gift of life.

This veil of personality and traits — now lighter, sheerer, more fluid and loving.

This set of beliefs — now lighter, sheerer, more insightful and open.

This set of roles in relationships — now lighter, sheerer, more ready to see the wholeness of being as you engage with others.

This veil of personal history loosely woven life lessons — now lighter, sheerer and full of kindness.

This final veil of possessions, no longer seen as self at all, but simply objects to use, enjoy, give, receive and maintain.

Once again you are fully dressed in all your veils, but now they are diaphanous and don’t weigh you down. Never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic inseparable you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

                                               – Stephanie Noble

 

The Faulty Filter of Fear

 

fear-final-500

As I was meditating the other morning, I noticed fear arising. This is not unusual. Fear appears in many guises — worry, planning, anxiety, hurt feelings, self-doubt, anger, etc. Fear is felt in the body as tension. Fear is a presence I usually recognize when it shows up, but this time I saw the fear in a very different way. That new way of seeing fear has helped me. Maybe it will help you, too.

An important part of our practice, especially when things aren’t going well, is to do a little self-inquiry. A key question we ask ourselves is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ I could see that I was relating to my experience with fear. But how am I in relationship with fear itself? In that moment I could see that the fear is not part of the fabric of my being, but is, instead, a lens or a filter through which I am looking at experience. The fear is not me, not even an aspect of me, though almost every aspect of who I perceive myself to be looks at the world through the distorting faulty filter of fear.

If fear is simply a filter or a lens, suddenly it is neutral and more manageable. It is neither friend nor foe. It is not the boss of me. I don’t have to go into battle with it. It is simply an increasingly transparent filter that when in place distorts my view of things. Just noticing this gives me tremendous power! Whenever I become aware of fear arising, I can recognize it as the filter it is, and I have options: I can continue in my habituated way to look through the filter, or I can open my senses in this moment to see a world teeming with beauty and life ever unfolding in cycles of energy and matter. I can feel how this body, this transient gift, is intrinsically interconnected to all beings. And in that moment, that filter of fear reveals itself to be myopic and unreliable.

‘Now wait a minute’, you may be thinking, ‘fear is important and useful. Where would we be without fear? Would we have even survived as a species?’

These are interesting questions. So let’s look at fear more closely.

Let’s look at a situation where some innate sense in our body perceives a danger. Perhaps hair stands up on the back of the neck, or some other physical sensation that lets us know we might want to steer clear. Not walking into a situation that might put us at risk is a biological imperative. It’s instinctive. Point taken.

But I wonder when we live so steeped in fear all the time, if we really pick up on the instinctive cues. Fortunately I have not had the opportunity to see for myself. But I do follow my neighborhood online community and there was an interesting discussion about a ‘colorful character’ in town who wears different costumes on our main street, including one of a Buddhist monk! Another outfit is a kilt. Those are the only two I’ve seen. Anyway, the online conversation ranged from concern for the fellow to concern for public safety. But only one person in the group had actually had a conversation with the man. He found him to be a very sweet, not altogether ‘there’ person, who was clearly not a threat to anyone. Yet his very calm presence in his various guises really rattled up a lot of fear in a number of people. The filter of fear is full of faulty assumptions.

There are those hopefully rare times when an adrenaline rush sparked by fear gives us extra strength and speed to, for example, get out of the way of a moving vehicle. Okay, life saved! Good job! But upon closer inspection, we might ask how did we get in that position? Could we have been more mindful? More in touch with all our senses so that we could see that car coming? Maybe if we weren’t distracted by our phone, our planning mind, etc. But, yes, let’s acknowledge that adrenaline is useful in very small doses on such occasions. It’s when adrenaline is pouring through the body constantly keeping us on high alert that it can cause all kinds of problems in our bodies and minds.

Everyone in class this week recognized the existence of fear in an ongoing way. some immediately, some after an autopilot declaration of ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’ After a few minutes of looking more closely, they could see that it was fear itself that was making that bold statement.

It may help to consider whether fear itself is disruptive, or if it is our blindness to it that causes us trouble. For example, I am afraid right now, anxious about whether the medical treatments for my brother will work. If I don’t acknowledge how this fear is impacting me, how my whole torso is tense as a direct result of my concern, then I won’t treat myself tenderly. I won’t make room for all that is arising. And as a result I will be, I guarantee it, unskillful in some way: anxious mindless eating, prickly in relationships, exhausted and grumpy, or some other of many possible totally useless and sometimes destructive ‘coping’ mechanisms. And making an enemy of fear causes even more upset that may play out badly.

Just now from the other room I heard my brother on the phone telling his friend he didn’t know why Stephanie wasn’t able to find those other pills in his bag. Opportunity to notice my reaction: Okay, yup, there it is: Hurt, fury, ‘after all I’ve done for you’ yada yada, worry about being seen as a lousy caregiver by whoever he was talking to. word spreads, elder abuse – oh my! Okay now a little revenge, plotting to give my brother the cold shoulder for his lack of appreciation, (even as I know I won’t do that, because after all he’s operating out of fear too, and he’s in a fight for his life). All this mental storm in a matter of thirty seconds! Wow. Fear in the house!

Acknowledging the fear, I allow myself the time, space and compassion needed to be skillful in my life, taking care of the needs of others more ably and lovingly because I continue to be present and compassionate with myself. If this sounds self-centered, remember the oxygen mask directions on an airplane. Put your own mask on first before helping someone else. Especially for many women, this is a necessary reminder. How much of our willingness to give ourselves away, to always put others first even to the detriment of our own health, has to do with fear? ALL of it, in one way or another.

So we recognize fear. We feel it in the tension in the body. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of it, because that is just an inner battle between — let’s nickname them — ‘logical mind’ and ‘scaredy cat’. There’s no kindness or respect there. It’s more skillful to simply listen, using the infinite inner wisdom that rises up when we take the time to listen in. Every little aspect of self except that infinite inner wisdom is terrified of something. And it’s useful to see the nature of that fear. There’s the fear of making a fool of ourselves, so that aspect keeps us from speaking. There’s the fear of getting hurt in love, so that aspect keeps us from exposing our vulnerability. With awareness and compassion, we can recognize the specific fear-based message of any fear we identify. It can also be helpful to investigate where that message came from. But all of this is done in a loving and respectful way. Not to change or get rid of anything.

Fear sets in when we let unexamined assumptions motivate us. Past experience perhaps has taught us to be cautious in certain situations or with certain people. People who were major influencers in our lives handed down their own fear-based views, and we accepted them without question, too. So here we are, full of fear. But it’s just a lens distorting reality. And we have our tools of skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is the man wearing a kilt one day and a monk’s robe the next a threat? 

For some fears, we don’t need to go on an inner journey. We just have to recognize what we are surrounding ourselves with in our daily lives. If the news is churning out endless images, headlines and opinions that are contrived to activate a fear-based addiction, is it any surprise we feel overwhelmed with fear?

When we don’t take the time to question the veracity of our beliefs and assumptions, then fear holds the reins of our lives, causing us to behave in ways that are destructive to ourselves, those around us and, since we’re all a part of the same living system, ultimately all life on down through generations.

‘Now wait a minute’, you may say again, ‘where would we be without fear? It’s a great motivator to do the right thing. Without the fear of negative consequences, wouldn’t we all just run around doing all kinds of damage?’  I don’t know the answer to that. Certainly people are motivated by fear to do the right thing: Fear of going to hell. Fear of a spanking. Fear of losing our job. Fear of getting a ticket. Fear of getting fat. Fear of being seen as less than admirable. Fear is a powerful motivator, no doubt about it. But the results of acting out of fear quite naturally fail.

Let’s take the example of the fear of getting a ticket. That’s a pretty common fear, one that all drivers tend to have. But we could drive with mindfulness and compassion, aware of the fact that we are driving a potential weapon of death, maintaining safe speeds, watching for pedestrians and other vehicles, sharing the road with kindness and consideration, and we would be skillful drivers. The fear of getting a ticket could make us think that as long as there isn’t a police car in the vicinity we could pretty much run rampant and ‘get away with it’. What are we getting away with? While not all laws are perfect, the majority of laws were made up to keep us safe. The laws are based in common sense, and if we use common sense, awareness and compassion, we don’t have to be afraid of getting a ticket.

For me now, the direction of this exploration takes a fearful turn. Because of the advent of videos capturing incidents of police violence against unarmed black men, there is a heightened awareness and what feels like a very reasonable fear. Because the majority of the men in my family are black, my chest tightens with fear when I think about it. When it comes to this particular fear, I am currently unable to talk myself down from the ledge. But I will keep looking at it, and that’s all any of us can do: Just keep practicing, and keep exploring. I have noticed that I am less fearful when I am able to actively do something, so that might be something to also explore.

Our practice is to notice what is arising. Noticing fear is not always comfortable. But finding a way to be present with fear, without pushing it away or making it the enemy, really does help us to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience.

See for yourself if you are looking at your experience or the world through a faulty filter. And please let me know what you discover!

Noting sensations and emotions: It’s not all bad!

five sensesLast week I shared the experience of receiving difficult news, and the challenges of meditating with ‘the elephant in the room’ — that one big overbearing excruciating thought/emotion.

Over the course of the week, I continued to pay attention to physical sensation, and what a series of shifts there were to notice! Before the ‘elephant’ sensation set in, back when we were waiting to hear the diagnosis after my brother’s many scan, tests and biopsies — dreading bad news but also wanting answers — my whole body had been wracked with tension. Of course I did what I could to relax and release it, but the body just kept saying ‘Really?’

Then when I wrote last week’s post right after receiving the news we had dreaded. (Thank you to friends who wrote with concern and I’m sorry to have been so opaque about what is going on, but this is the internet after all, and I was concerned for my brother’s privacy. This week I realize we’re in for the long haul here, since he was diagnosed with metastasized cancer, and though it won’t be the subject of every post — I promise! — it is now very much a presence in my life, and it would be counter to the practice to pretend to ignore it. I also realized that only very close friends and family know who my brother is, so his privacy is not really an issue here.)

Okay, so we get this tidal wave of challenging news, and I notice that the tension that was wracking my whole body dissipated. I was no longer anxious because I wasn’t waiting on pins and needles with worry and not knowing. Instead I was brokenhearted, and felt the heaviness in the heart area that accompanies the strong emotions of loss, grief, sorrow. The elephant wasn’t just ‘in the room’. It was sitting on my chest!

Now because my difficult news still has, after extensive treatments, the potential to turn into good news eventually, the heaviness in my chest lifted more quickly than it might have had the news been of a permanent loss. I say this for anyone who has lost a loved one, either by death or separation. In that case the heaviness may lift and return many times. Or there may be other physical sensations that might be noticed. The main thing is that we practice noticing, staying in touch with physical sensation, because it is such a valuable messenger at a time we may be feeling quite lost. If we feel exhausted, for example, we need to take care of ourselves and not keep pushing. If we keep pushing, what happens? We find we are behaving unskillfully, and feelings are hurt all around.

For all of us dealing with ANY challenges in life of whatever magnitude, it’s tempting to embrace pleasant sensations and push through or ignore unpleasant ones. But in our practice of being present, we do ourselves a disservice by trying to escape our experience. There are no short cuts through the landscape of emotions. When we try to cut through the rough grass to get to some other part of our trail that looks easier, we get scratched, we get ticks, we get poison oak or ivy, and oftentimes we get lost. This, whatever it is in this moment, is the experience we need to attend.

But what if the pain is intolerable?
Sometimes a particular sensation, thought or emotion feels unbearable. But if we cultivate spaciousness, we might begin to notice that there is more than just this one unpleasant experience going on in this moment.

A physical example of this might be a strong pain in the right knee. Instead of getting caught up in a story about the pain, we expand our awareness to notice that maybe the other knee doesn’t hurt, or if it does, that the thigh or the shoulder or the foot is either neutral or is maybe even having a pleasant sensation. We are not running away from what is. We are expanding to include all of what is happening in this current moment, not just the difficult thing.

This is the same with current conditions. We notice unpleasant conditions, but being fully present with it allows us to also notice whatever pleasant or neutral things are occurring as well. Have you ever seen a child surrounded by toys, friends and loving parents, pouting or crying because of one little thing that isn’t to his or her liking? Have you ever seen news footage of a person in a desolate refugee camp commenting on some little thing in their experience that brings them joy? In both cases we can see that we all have choices in what we notice. This is not a Pollyanna prescription. No one’s saying ‘Look on the bright side’. We’re saying, in every moment, cultivate awareness and compassion, and look at ALL sides, or see beyond ‘sides’ and into the vast realm of being alive and awake in this moment. What a gift!

Activating all the senses and enjoying pleasant ones is a way of bringing balance into our current experience. Maybe that’s why there’s often engaging art in hospitals. It doesn’t take us away from the experience but it does offer balance. Yes, this is difficult but life itself is not inherently a horrible experience. Many hospitals also offer comfortable outdoor seating, so that sunshine and plants will bring us solace. This is not avoidance. This is balance.

So notice in any given moment all the sensations — sights, sounds, textures, temperature, energy level, tension, ease, pressure, twinges, aches, etc. — and see if you can simply stay present with the symphony of experience without getting caught up in wanting it to be different than it is.

This is not about fixing anything about ourselves or anything else. We are practicing a skill that has never been encouraged before, so it’s new and challenging. Any self-judgment simply creates more to notice, and more compassion and spaciousness for us to cultivate.

How to Sit with an Elephant in the Room

 

elephantSometimes in life we are faced with great challenges and difficulties that, when we sit down to meditate, simply refuse to be dismissed. Even though this is obviously a time when meditation would be most helpful, it would be easy to say ‘I don’t have time for this’ or ‘This won’t help because I can’t stop thinking about what’s going on in my life right now.’

I am sitting this morning with a mind that is processing new and devastating news about the health of a close loved one. It fills my mind to capacity. It’s like a huge elephant taking up all the space. So what can I do? Give up? No, of course not. It is times like these that I need my practice the most!

In this tradition we stay present with what is, cultivating spaciousness and compassion. So I do that now, staying present with a mind that is reeling and a heart that is breaking. I have practiced meditation in order to be in the moment, no matter what the moment brings, and especially when it brings something that seems too difficult to bear.

Even in a moment when I’d like to run and hide, I know that awareness is more helpful than hiding. By not putting the pillow over my head, turning away from the experience, trying to drown out the experience with distractions, pushing the experience away, I am infinitely more well-equipped to find solace. I am not making an enemy of anything that arises in my experience. In this way I don’t have to get defensive, don’t have to do battle, don’t have to build up a fortress. I cultivate compassion, and in this way I take care of myself. Then, by extension, I am better able to be of use to others, in this case my loved one and our family and friends who are also affected.

There is this erroneous idea that meditation is a practice of perfecting certain states that lead to nirvana. With that in mind a situation like this — where the elephant is filling all the space in my mind — would be deemed a failure. I am not in nirvana here. I am just this side of a blubbering mess. But, I am very aware of what is arising, and I am holding myself in a tender way.

I can come into friendly relationship with the elephant — not developing an attachment by getting caught up in the story of the causes and conditions of my current state, making a special pet of the elephant — but simply allowing it to be present, just as it is, for as long as it stays.

I am noticing how when I close my eyes to meditate, when I follow the breath, that my chest is heavy. I notice that the sensations in my body are different than usual, and hard to describe. While it’s skillful to notice and even describe it to ourselves, in this case If I get too caught up in finding the right words to share with you, it takes me out of the body and into my writer’s brain. So I return to simply noticing, sensing in, sensing in, sensing in.

Being present with these sensations, however they present themselves, is enough. I am not trying to change anything. If I find tension, I might relax and release it to whatever degree I’m able, but again, I’m not making tension an enemy.

At times the mind is racing, planning, trying to solve the problem, and yes, at times it becomes so entangled that I can’t quite hold it all in awareness. I am caught up in it. But then just enough awareness comes in that I can reset my intention to hold it all with spaciousness and compassion. I am shining loving light on all of it, and with that a certain lightness and softening occurs.

And then things shift and change again. And that too is the nature of mind.

This is also an especially good time for metta practice, first for myself, because I can’t share what I don’t have; and then to my loved one, envisioning healing light, and then out into the community of all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

In class after practicing together, and after giving this talk, I invited anyone who wanted to do so to share a little from their own lives in the realm of meditation and coping with overwhelming emotion. As you might imagine it was a rich class, with everyone having something to offer.

Then we did walking meditation in the garden on a beautiful spring day, noticing everything in a deep way with great gratitude for life and for taking the time to be present.

What does this bring up for you?

After meditation, gentle investigation

investigationInvestigation as an important part of the Insight Meditation experience. After the practice of meditation, chances are we have cultivated a more spacious compassionate awareness that allows us to look at the nature of mind with less fear, judgment or expectation. In meditation, we practice just being present with physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away. After we meditate, when our thoughts ramble, rather than reminding ourselves to return to the breath or another physical sensation, we can add in some curiosity and follow the thread of that curiosity.

At some point we might notice that we keep having a recurring thought. Instead of simply accepting this thought as true, blocking it out or dismissing it, we allow ourselves to look more closely. I’ll talk a little bit more about the content of the thought shortly, but it is probably pretty mundane and easy to overlook. What makes it worthy of investigating is its repetitive nature. It’s a central player in the pattern of our thinking mind. It might even be driving the inner conversation.

So we do a little friendly interrogation, using simple questions — not to find fault or place blame but to shine a light on what is really going on. No crime has been committed here. There’s no need to rough anybody up.

As examples, I will use two types of repeating thoughts. Yours might be quite different, but the process is the same. One typical thought is a self-judgment or a judgment of a situation, as in ‘I am so dumb’ or ‘This is so lame.’ Another typical thought begins with ‘If only…’ as in, ‘If only I had/didn’t have/didn’t have to (fill in the blank) then I’d be happy.’

So, if you are reading this in a spacious state of mind and with a relaxed body, then I suggest you pause and think about something else (how often does a writer ask you to do that?) Just let yourself think your regular thoughts — what you plan to do today, what you did yesterday, letting your mind wander, even as you continue to pay some attention to overall physical sensations.

In this way you might notice if you start tensing up somewhere in your body. Now see if you can identify what thought or emotion is connected to that tension. What were you thinking about that seems to have caused your jaw or shoulders or some other body part to tense up? Spend as much time exploring this as you need. Even let it go, relax and release, and then return to allowing your mind to wander.

If nothing comes up for you, you might try triggering a thought pattern by completing one of the sentences:

“If only…”

“I am so…”

“_______ always happens to me.”

“He/she/life is always so…”

When a thought causes some tension and feels familiar, you can use it for your exploration, even if you think you might find a better one if you keep looking. This is just to give you the experience of how to do the exploration. You can do it again whenever you want.

The funny thing about the thought is that you might not even recognize it as anything but just the truth. Thus it is hard to spot! It is hidden in plain sight.

Naturally our first inclination is to agree with the thought, to build a stronger case for it with numerous examples that support it. It becomes what feels like a very solid part of our perceived identity. It is our story, and we tell it again and again. Even if it’s very negative, we still may cling to it. It’s not much, but it’s ours.

This well-developed story probably affects everything else we think or feel, the way a small amount of dye can tint a large body of water. Thus we are most likely making ourselves miserable, and quite possibly spreading that misery in all our relationships.

What to do, what to do! Having identified the recurring thought — and congratulations if you have! — we now can greet it with respect and kindness, as we ask “Is this true?”

“Is this true?” Hmm. There is likely to be some discomfort in questioning something we have taken for granted for so long. But at the same time we may begin to see that our tight clinging to it is uncomfortable. Just look at the way it causes tension in the body, and that’s just a part of the discomfort.

“Is this true?” Right off the top of our heads, we say of course it’s true. After all, we’ve bought into it all these years. Why wouldn’t we believe it to be true?

So we kindly and respectfully ask again. “Is this true?”

The investigation continues in this way, focusing more on the question, repeating the question again and again,  so that we are revealing layers of easy assumptions, smart-aleck retorts, grumpy mumbles and all the rest.. To each we say a silent respectful ‘thank you’, and return to our investigation. To respond in any other way is to simply get caught up in the tangle of thought we’re examining. (If this exercise is difficult to do on your own, find someone who is interested in doing it with you, preferably someone who has also just meditated.)

It can be challenging to remain respectful and kind. When we ask the question, we tap into our deepest wisdom, our inherent Buddha nature that we have accessed through our silent practice. In this way we can stay present with the experience. We may notice a rigidity setting in, a defensive posture, or another way that our fear of upsetting the status quo keeps us in its grip. We simply note the fear and give ourselves a little loving kindness and encouragement from our inner wisdom. (However, just a caveat that if this is too powerful and too scary, then find a qualified therapist, grounded in Buddhist psychology, to accompany you on this journey.)

Eventually there may be a slight shift and a different response comes up from someplace a little deeper, a little more heartfelt, a little more true.

We can also shift the questioning by going a little further and asking ‘How do I know it’s true?’ (You might recognize these questions as the core of the work of Byron Katie, a wonderful Buddhist teacher/author.)

This second question really challenges us to look at our assumptions. It makes us see the statement in full context. Where did this idea originally come from anyway? In this state of compassionate awareness and gentle investigation it is possible to see the thread that connects the recurring thought to something or someone in the past. We may even be able to hear in our heads the voice or the exact wording of the person who originally gave us this idea. Or we might recognize the traumatic experience in the past that continues to make us fearful. One member of our group said that she recognized the source, but that the original was even more insidious, that she had modified it to fit her better, but the content was still clearly there.

If we can identify the origin of the thought, then that’s a big leap forward in our understanding. If you can’t, It’s totally fine. Let go of expectation. But be open to the possibility that the origin might just waft up from the subconscious, sparked by something you see, read or hear over the next few days or weeks. And keep noticing that recurring thought, and each time it comes up, question it again in the same way. “Is it true? How do I know it’s true?”

If you do see the connection — immediately or much later — then there’s another opportunity to question with spaciousness, respect and compassion, whether that original source was reliable. Whether it came from a parent, a teacher, a friend, an ex or a schoolyard bully, you can recognize in retrospect that they were not omniscient possessors of all wisdom. They were human with all the foibles of any other human. Chances are, if the statement being examined is painful (as in ‘I’m so dumb’) or circuitously sets us up for pain (as in ‘if only’ statements), then the source of the statement was also in pain.

Sometimes the origin is not some specific person but just seems to be part of the culture. Advertising activates a lot of fear-based ‘if only’ thinking. (I used to be in advertising. Talk about insidious!) There are a lot of people banking on us feeling badly enough about ourselves that we will succumb to their assurances that their product or service will fix us up.

We are often so busy in our lives that we just don’t take the time to make such investigations. We might judge it as self-indulgent navel-gazing. But wait. If we are telling ourselves something that is not true, that is from an unreliable source, and we are making ourselves miserable in the process, then isn’t it worth a few minutes that we otherwise might spend watching a ball game or reading a novel — trying hard to escape from that harsh judgment or nagging thought?

Of course it is. So if you have already developed a daily practice of meditation, you are cultivating awareness and compassion, that likely is improving your mood, providing more balance, and softening the way you interact in relationships. Now, consider making good use of that time right after meditation — while you do some exercise or simple quiet household chores or personal hygiene perhaps? Whenever you happen to notice a harsh thought arising, a put down, a wish for this moment to be different, celebrate that noticing! And investigate!

Why I teach a women’s group

kwan yinWhen I guest teach elsewhere people often come up to me afterwards and ask where else I teach. When I tell them I lead a weekly women’s group, the women smile and seem to completely understand why that would be a good thing. If their schedule allows, they want come on a Thursday morning and give it a try.

But, not surprisingly, when men hear my answer they have a very different response: ‘Isn’t that sexist?’ ‘Why exclude men?’ And I agree with them, or at least I did until relatively recently.

When I began teaching insight meditation ten years ago, it was at the request of a few friends who happened to be women. There was no particular intention to create a ‘women’s meditation group’, but as the sangha grew by word of mouth, the members invited women friends, sisters and daughters. For whatever reason, they did not invite their husbands or male friends to come along. After a few years, the students started asking if we could call it a women’s group and limit it to women. I repeatedly said no, explaining that I felt strongly it should be an open group, even if no men show up. These teachings are universal, I told them, and it would be wrong to withhold them from anyone who wanted to learn them.

Then I spent a couple of weeks traveling around Morocco. It was my first exposure to a culture where women are truly hidden away. We saw men everywhere but very rarely did we see women walking about or filling any jobs in public places. It was a big deal when we saw a lone woman in the countryside carrying a bunch of firewood on her head. The tour arranged for us to be invited into people’s homes for occasional meals, which was lovely. But where were the women? The men sat at the table and engaged us in conversation, while the women were off in the kitchen cooking up dishes that they served us before disappearing again. They didn’t set a place for themselves at the table.

Hmm. There was something both sad and familiar in this. My mother-in-law often did the same, saying she had already ‘eaten’ while she was cooking and tasting. And I recognized that many women everywhere have some degree of this feeling of exclusion, an ingrained sense that we don’t have a seat at the table of life, that we are meant to remain in the background.

What does it take for us to awaken to the realization that we do have seats at the table, just by virtue of having been born? Our seat has always been there for us. We just didn’t know it was ours. We’ve been waiting around for an invitation or for someone to pull out a chair. Well, hello, we don’t need an invitation! It’s our table, too! We can sit down and enjoy the fruits of our own labors, whatever they may be. Why is this so difficult for so many of us to do?

When I returned from Morocco, I finally understood in a deep way how important it was that in our meditation group we are always actively addressing these issues, applying the Buddha’s teachings to the specific challenges we face as women. And yes, okay, let’s call it a women’s group and acknowledge the importance of creating a safe haven for directed exploration of our own experience. That is, after all, what we had been doing all along, but finally I could see the  value in naming and claiming it, something I had not understood until that journey to a land of invisible women.

It’s important to create a safe space to question these long-held assumptions of who we are in the world. This is not a gripe session or a victims’ support group. But it is an opportunity to look at the whole of our experience, and not just the subset where it overlaps the experiences of men.

But why do we still need this? Sure, women have made great strides, but look around! The challenges are ever-present. And even if the world were a perfect place where girls and women were no longer objectified, belittled and dis-empowered in a myriad of ways, gross and subtle, we would still be living with the cultural ripples, the patterns of thought and emotion that have been embedded in our psyches, handed down from generation to generation for millennia. Acknowledging this is empowering and crucial right now because we can see that our passive acceptance of male domination has put not just us but all life on this planet in jeopardy. Not only do we have a seat at the table if we feel like it, we need to take our seats and speak our truth out of love for all beings. Now more than ever!

Speaking our truth can be scary. I am fortified again and again by the insight I had on one silent retreat. I realized that “I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to fear. I have something to give.” This helps me counter the shy little girl inside who doesn’t want to make a fuss. Forget that! Let’s make that ‘fuss’! We can let go of our fear of being seen and judged.  (I also need to give a shout out and a recommendation to check out Toastmasters if you are afraid to speak your truth in public. Participating in a local club can change your life! It did mine.)

It’s a huge awakening to realize that we are not objects. We are the subjects of our own lives, and co-creators of life on this earth at this time. (In general men do not need to be told they are the subjects of their lives. Of course they are. They look completely baffled when confronted with this idea. What else would they be?) But we women have historically been taught to be completely focused on the needs of others before even wondering what our needs, interests and desires might be. To that end we continually reshape ourselves to suit each role, to be the best daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, employee, co-worker, employer, etc. that we can be so we will be loved, needed, appreciated, respected — safely held in the reflection of other people whose opinions we deeply care about. We can arrive at a point, as I certainly did years ago, where we totally lose sight of whoever it is we are outside of the roles we play.

In the Buddha’s teachings there is a strong focus on letting go of shoring up identity. Yes! It’s very important to recognize that we are not some isolated being encased in a bag of skin. But often for women there needs to be a period of discovery of who that person is even in the most common sense of the word — to develop a healthy ego — before we can soften our attachment to it. Could you give a moment here, guys?

In the previous post we looked at why I practice and teach insight meditation instead of some other form of Buddhism. A big reason is the post-meditative explorations that are part of the practice. That focus of interior investigation plays a big role in why we have a women’s group. If all we did was to sit together, then went out into the world refreshed, there would be no particular reason to have a gender-specific group. But there’s much more to an insight meditation class than that, isn’t there? We go deep! And in that depth are discoveries that are personal in nature, and we may, at least at times, feel safer to explore them in the company of people who understand from their own experience what we are talking about. It is about vulnerability. This is not about making men — or anyone — the enemy. Quite the opposite! Instead it is to allow for hidden truths to arise within us, and to support each other in that investigation. Perhaps later we can share our findings with the men in our lives so that they can understand us better. But in the investigation itself, in that vulnerable place, the shared experience and understanding is vital.

If you look at a Spirit Rock Meditation Center schedule, you’ll see that there are a number of classes and retreats specifically for certain groups: People of Color, LGBTQ, women, men, parents, teens, families, elders and more. At first glance it looks like segregation and my initial response to it was feeling confused and even fearful: Why am I being excluded? Am I perceived as a threat by that community? I don’t feel like I’m a threat. Aren’t we all made of the same stuff? What are they talking about in there? Are they making me the enemy? So, believe me, I understand when men pose the same question to me about teaching a women-only group.

To calm my sense of feeling excluded, I remind myself that when I first started going on retreats, I chose women-only retreats because I felt I could let go and be completely myself. After a few retreats, I no longer felt that having men around — all in silence and with no eye contact — was a problem. We were all there being very interior, dealing with our own thoughts and emotions, not interacting with others. One day sitting in the meditation hall, I heard a man weeping. It cracked open my heart to realize how much alike we all are at the core. I was grateful to be sitting in a sweet sangha of brothers and sisters, all vulnerable together.

But at first and still at times, I need to be with just my sangha sisters.

Of course, we all hope for a world in which everyone feels equally empowered, and that is part of what we are learning through meditation and investigation. But we don’t get there by denying what is true in this moment. We look at whatever is arising — the good, the bad and the ugly — and then, in a respectful and friendly way, question it. Is this true? How do I know this is true? How am I in relationship to whatever is arising? What am I afraid of here? And then we patiently listen in.

This is a universal investigation. We all have incorporated the harsh messages of our culture into the ongoing unquestioned messages we tell ourselves. But women, simply by virtue of being women, have different messages that keep coming up, and different ways of dealing with them.  Whether our brains are fundamentally different from men’s is a matter of scientific research, and some findings indicate that there are over 100 ways brains have physical, hormonal and chemical differences between the ‘average’ male and ‘average’ female. None of us are average, of course! We each fall somewhere on a spectrum between what have traditionally been considered masculine and feminine traits. And anywhere we fall on the spectrum is just fine. But what we can see clearly is that we have been and continue to be treated differently, creating within us some special challenges when it comes to awakening to our true natures. So we come together as ‘just us girls’ to ‘let our hair down.’ And we encourage the men to create community together, to explore through compassionate self-inquiry how personal and cultural messages have shaped previously unquestioned beliefs that may be causing them suffering.

In this way, we can all come together with greater understanding of ourselves and the nature of being alive in this moment, and recognize in a deep and meaningful way that we really are all made of the same stuff.