GYR-8! The Gyroscope and the Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds


Last spring we looked at the Eight Worldly Winds: pleasure & pain, gain & loss, praise & censure, status & disgrace. Each of us is always in some relationship with these ‘winds’. If we are not experiencing them, perhaps we are chasing after them or running away from them.

You can notice this for yourself.  Consider each pairing in regard to your current state.

EXERCISE

Sense into your body to notice any pain you might be feeling, and then notice if there is any place that feels pleasant. Is there any pleasure your craving, maybe looking forward to a meal or an outing? Is there any pain you’re perhaps concerned might recur?

Looking at loss, perhaps you have lost a loved one. Looking at gain, perhaps there’s a new member of the family to love. Perhaps you have lost an ability, like your hearing or sight or physical stamina. Perhaps you have gained a new one, maybe from studying and practicing a new language or musical instrument. Perhaps the stock market has taken you on a ride, your bank account is dwindling or you have lost all your worldly goods in a disaster. Or perhaps you have received a financial windfall.

Looking at praise & censure, think about something nice someone said about you that made you feel good, something unkind that made you feel badly. Think about who you may be trying to please. Think about who you fear judging you. Take note of your own inner censor and how harshly it judges you.

Looking at status and disgrace, consider your ‘standing’ or reputation in your community — within your family, your group of friends, your profession, or the world, if you have ‘made a name for yourself.’ At this moment are you held in high regard? Do you actively build your reputation, polishing up your life on social media, perhaps? Or have you fallen into disgrace? Has your reputation taken a hit? Do you have a negative reputation that haunts you?  Is there a sense of people talking about you behind your back? And in either case how does it make you feel? Before saying or doing anything, do you take into consideration how it will affect your reputation?

If you did this exercise, it probably provided a lot to think about. If you don’t have time now to do it, bookmark this page for when you have more time.

Our relationship with these Eight Worldly Winds best illustrate how we cause ourselves suffering through craving and aversion. We tend to crave pleasure, praise, fame and gain. We tend to have an aversion to pain, blame, disgrace and loss. We’re programmed that way! And to a certain extent these instincts keep us from doing harmful things. But not doing something harmful because we are afraid of being blamed or getting a bad reputation is not as skillful or wise as not doing something because we care about all life. And it takes a lot more mental activity to keep gauging the external effects every time we do or say something than it does to cultivate compassion for ourselves and all beings.

The Eight Worldly Winds are the vicissitudes of earthly life. We can’t make them go away, but we can develop a skillful way to be present with them. Consider the gyroscope that I proposed in the last post as a simile for how we can maintain a balanced ethical way of being in the world. It is also a good way to think about how we can balance ourselves as these Eight Worldly Winds blow through.
The inner circle of the gyroscope, when spinning, keeps the gyroscope balanced regardless of what is happening in our lives. And how do we keep that inner circle spinning? Through the regular practice of meditation and quiet time for self-reflection.

READ MORE about the gyroscope simile

READ MORE about the Eight Worldly Winds

Happy Valentine’s Day!

In Mexico it is the day of love and friendship. In elementary school we give valentines to everyone. It’s only when hormones kick in that it becomes a special greeting to a heartthrob.

If you have a heartthrob, may you enjoy a sweet celebration of romantic love. If you don’t have a heartthrob, let this day not be one of lack, but one of love in a much broader sense! A day of loving your neighbor as yourself, a day of smiles for all you meet, a day of remembering that we are all tender souls who need kindness.

Feliz dia del amor y amistad a todos.

How to develop a moral compass…or a gyroscope

In the last post, I wrote about codes of ethics that guide us with a reliable set of rules to keep us out of trouble. As helpful as this code is, it takes an on-the-spot thought process that isn’t always convenient: First, we feel an impulse to do or say something; then we just do or say it, OR we pause and consider the ethical implications using our code of ethics. (This is where it helps to have a brief memorable code!) Then we either go ahead and do or say what we wanted, feeling assured it’s the right thing; or we back away, aware it was an ill-conceived impulse that would cause harm if indulged.

As beneficial as this process may be, in reality we are unlikely to pause to consider the ethical implications in every situation, given emotions, hormones, split-second demands, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and such. But the code of ethics is still there. Maybe we’ve stuffed it down so we won’t have to think about it, or maybe it’s grown larger, scolding us with its giant wagging finger. On some level we are aware of how we erred by ignoring our code of ethics. Now we feel badly, or at least some part of us does, and that starts an inner battle that makes us less and less happy. Guilt, regret, worry. You know the drill. If we’re lucky, it’s as simple as that, and we can seek to make things right through apology, restitution, etc. But often instead of seeing things clearly, we try to cover our tracks and justify our actions in all sorts of complex ways that further entangle us in shame, self-hatred, vilification of others, etc.

Oh my! What a help a reliable inner moral compass would be! It would save us the hassle of figuring all this out and referring to a list we left in the pocket of our pants when they went through the laundry, so now the ink is so blurry we can barely read it anyway. With an inner moral compass, we’d just know. Right? But is this something some people or born with and others are not? Do we all have the capability to develop such an inner sense?

The Buddhist code of ethics, the Five Precepts, enumerated in the previous post, is easy to remember, but that’s no guarantee, is it? Relying on any list as our sole guidance is going to produce random results. So Buddhism doesn’t just lay down the law. It provides a means of developing an inner moral compass.

The daily practice of mindful meditation and the practice of metta (universal loving-kindness), while not a panacea, strengthens our ability to develop an inner moral compass. If you have a regular practice, perhaps you have noticed that yourself. Just being more aware of physical sensation can help us notice the body’s strong hints that we’re entering questionable territory, or the way our thoughts begin to waver and weave stories, and the way our emotions get overwrought.

Even more profound a shift may be a growing sense of interconnectedness that naturally interferes with tendencies to gossip, lie, cheat, steal, etc. How clearly we can sense that any harm we do is to the whole fabric of life. Why would we despoil the web of our being?

But is what we develop through meditation really like a compass? There is another device that seems to me to be a better simile and that is the gyroscope.

A compass points to the magnetic north (which apparently is shifting!), but a gyroscope stays centered and upright in any situation. A compass is a tool to help us get somewhere else, while a gyroscope helps us to be here and now, able to handle any set of circumstances.

A gyroscope — used in aircraft to help keep them upright — on its own is just a set of metal circles with an axis. It’s only when the center circle (in this image, the solid gold one) is set to spinning that the gyroscope is suddenly able to right itself in even the most precarious circumstances.

It takes some action to set the gyroscope spinning, either a string that we wind and pull or some other mechanical means. In this simile, that ‘setting into motion’ is our regular practice of meditation. Of course the activity of meditation is calming and quieting, but something is being set into motion as well: awareness, compassion, clarity, concentration, kindness, a sense of interconnection and peace.

When we maintain a daily practice of meditation, we are better able to stay balanced regardless of external circumstances, just like the gyroscope.

So a code of ethics informs our wise intention and provides guidance, but it works best when paired with meditation practice, so that we can respond to what arises wisely instead of reacting impulsively. You might think of it as learning to dance with life instead of going into battle with it.

I would love to read your comments, your own experiences and any questions. – Stephanie

What code of ethics do you follow?

I recently saw the Japanese film Shoplifters and recommend it. I mention it here because it has an example of how we develop a code of ethics. The boy in the movie is taught that until an item is purchased it doesn’t belong to anyone, so it’s okay to take it. With this moral guidance in place, he feels fine about shoplifting for the family. But then he sees his foster father checking out cars with the clear intent to do a smash and grab. The boy says, “Hey, wait, don’t these cars belong to people?” This new facet of the family business doesn’t fit into the code of ethics he’d been taught. His world tilts on its axis as he begins to see things differently.

We each live by some code of ethics. The code our parents and culture teach us is likely more skillful than what the boy was taught. Perhaps we learned the Ten Commandments, perhaps the Golden Rule, or perhaps more along the lines of ‘What will the neighbors think?’ or ‘Don’t be a loser.’ It’s worth noticing our ethical underpinnings and how they play out in our daily decisions.

The other day I saw a driver pause at a red light, then make a left turn against the light when the traffic was clear. Did he figure that since no police were present to ticket him, he could disregard the law? These laws are, for the most part, an agreement we make as a community, so that, without having the benefit of being able to look each other in the eye or talk, we can fairly predict what another driver will do.

When someone does something that to me seems so blatantly wrong, I have to wonder if he is drugged or drunk or mentally unstable. Is there some rare circumstance that makes him think that it’s okay just in this instance? Is he rushing to someone’s aid, for example? How is he justifying his behavior to himself? Is this just the way he operates in the world, measuring risk against reward and taking chances? Does he not see the risk? Does he not care? Does he think the rules don’t apply to him?

I’ll never know, but it brings up an interesting exploration into ethical decision making. What rules do we follow, what ones do we ignore, and what if any justification do we give ourselves for doing so? If there are unjust laws, do we as citizens work to get them changed? Or do we just accept them or ignore them?

This kind of inner investigation is useful for anyone to do. If you have been doing the regular practice of meditation, you probably have a better ability to slow down and observe the pattern of thoughts as they arise, and to see the source of the particular pattern that gives or denies permission to do something. Is there a code, either obvious or implied, at the core of the choices you make or the justifications you offer up to explain it to yourself? If there is a code of ethics there, are you living by it? And if not, are you punishing yourself, judging yourself, feeling ashamed, or offering excuses to override your code? Such questioning is valuable in uncovering delusion and seeing how you may be creating inner discordance and unnecessary suffering.

Buddhism has a very clear ethical code. Among other teachings, there are the Precepts. These are vows taken at the beginning of a retreat. They are very simple and reasonable, and they help to assure the retreat runs smoothly. They are easy to remember and refer to throughout our lives: We agree to not harm any living being, to not take what isn’t freely given, to not lie or gossip, to not misuse our sexuality, and to not ingest anything that would affect clarity of mind. A very good set of ethical standards to live by all the time! The exact wording varies, but the Precepts are guiding principles of value.

Some of these Precepts may be easier to follow than others. ‘Do no harm’ precept may seem the easiest, because we have good hearts and aren’t killers; but upon further investigation this precept reveals itself to be quite challenging since we are constantly making choices of what we eat, purchase and do, and all these choices may adversely affect the lives of others or the planet. Setting the intention and making wise effort to live by a precept is in and of itself valuable. Any investigation into what it might mean can most effectively be done with loving-kindness instead of shame, fear and guilt. No one is perfect. We do not need to erase our footprint on the sands of life. But joy is more available to experience if we live in a way that causes the least possible harm to ourselves and all beings.

Following the Buddhist Precepts or any other code of ethics we consciously choose, informs the choices we make in every moment and how we are in relation to everything we do and everyone we meet. It is definitely worth discovering what code we are living by, whether it is working well for us, or if we are at odds with it and, if so how that affects our lives and the lives of those around us.

If this feels like a timely investigation for you, I hope you will share any insights or questions that come up.

butterfly-breath

As a meditator, teacher and poet, I often come up with metaphors that help to cultivate ways to enhance meditation practice for myself and my students.

Most recently I came up with the metaphor of a butterfly in the garden, and how our mind’s attention flits around in just that way. This metaphor is particularly helpful if we are prone to scolding ourselves for thinking. We don’t scold a butterfly for flitting around, do we? So it’s a good way to remember to soften any harsh judgments of the wandering mind.

One bloom in the mind’s garden is particularly nourishing, and that’s the focus on the breath, rising and falling. As I’ve practiced with this metaphor, I’ve found myself better able to feel the difference between the flitting attention and the focused attention on the breath. When my attention rests there, I can feel the deepening and enriching of meditative experience like nourishing nectar, so my attention lingers longer.

Because this metaphor has helped me, I have put together this image in the hopes that it will help you, too.

Please share freely! – Stephanie

What keeps us from awakening?

3marks-3poisons500

At the very center of the graphic chart of all the Buddhist teachings are the Three Marks of Existence:

anicca, the impermanence of all life; anatta, no separate self; and dhukka, suffering that comes from our ongoing argument against the truth of the first two Marks. Hmm, they must be super important to be at the very center, right? They are! When we deeply understand these, then we awaken to a sense of aliveness and joy that lets us celebrate with gratitude this very moment, just as it is.
But most of us just can’t seem to embrace these Marks as true. We either don’t know about them because they’re not talked about in our culture, or we can’t make sense of them. They seem obscure. So, we suffer.
For example, if we get depressed or upset when we see wrinkles or we lose some abilities, we suffer, don’t we? We are not suffering because we are aging, but because we don’t see impermanence as a natural part of life.

The poet Mary Oliver died this week. Her ability to celebrate the natural world and bring meaning into our own lives was a powerful gift. May she be at peace. If anyone knew the nature of impermanence, it was she; for she observed it intimately every morning on her walks in the woods and marshes. That’s the kind of understanding of the nature of things that is not some cerebral notion, but a deep awareness. I am so grateful that she was able to share that wisdom in a way that resonated with so many. (In a 2015 interview, she said, “Lucretius says everything’s a little energy. You go back and you’re these little bits of energy and pretty soon you’re something else.“)
We also suffer when we believe that we are separate isolated entities encased in skin sacks, and that our main job is to polish and promote this separate self we call ‘me’ to obtain respect, power, love, admiration, etc. When our underlying reason to do things is to build up a separate-seeming self, then we feel lost and out of balance, dependent on the approval of others to be okay, and so we suffer.
We are not suffering because we are unlovable or because other people don’t understand us. We are suffering because we believe ourselves to be impermeable solid objects interacting with other solid objects in a stressful game we might win or lose.
If we look more closely at the nature of our existence, how every breath we inhale and exhale reminds us that we are intrinsically connected to all life, then we begin to open to the possibility that we are not alone. Further investigation shows us that skin is not an impermeable barrier that defines the boundary of our being, but is porous and very much engaged in life. And, if we take our investigation to a molecular level, we can see that all life is made up of the same stuff creatively arranged in constantly shifting formations, in a mind-boggling complexity of patterns, systems and networks that, once understood, release any sense of being isolated that we might have. We are all stardust. Not separate at all. And releasing our attachment to the idea of being separate frees us from a great deal of suffering.
Now notice how on the same chart of Buddhist teachings, encircling the Three Marks of Existence at the center are the ‘Three Poisons’: Greed, Aversion and Delusion.
Why, we might wonder, of all the Buddha’s teachings, would these two sets of three be so intimately entwined? Let’s investigate.
Might we say that the Three Poisons keep us from understanding and embracing the Three Marks of Existence? If so, how?
If we see impermanence as something to fight against, then we activate greed to shore up a sense of permanence: ‘If I just had that job, that house, that perfect body, that relationship, etc., then my life would be perfect forevermore.
We activate aversion to go into battle with the idea of impermanence. ‘I refuse to get old and I’ll do everything I can to look younger.’
And, to support the greed and aversion, delusion blinds us to the true nature of existence and creates a smoke screen that tells us that greed is good and we must protect ourselves from all that is ‘other’. Delusion tells us that if we can just get and do all the right things then permanent perfection is possible. Maybe even guaranteed.
If we feel isolated, then we activate greed to build up our fortress of self, believing that the more stuff we have, the more experiences we have, the more respected and desirable this separate self will be.
Aversion is activated at the scary notion of a separate seeming self, something that is learned when we are very young children. We feel we need to always defend this separate self against the ‘enemies’ that we perceive through our lens of fear.
Delusion delights in all this drama, creating mythologies, beliefs and a disorienting fog that together reinforce our belief in a separate self. Think of all the collective cultural myths that support the idea, for example, that life is a competition, that people who look different are dangerous, etc. It’s so easy for people in power to play on these delusions, and then we all suffer.
So the Three Poisons encircle the Three Characteristic of Marks as a hyper-vigilant barrier to deep understanding and awakening. Can we notice these Poisons arising in our experience, prompting our thoughts to play out all kinds of dramas? And instead of condemning what arises, can we just see them for what they are and hold them with a sense of compassion?
When we can do that, when we can perceive the patterns of the threads of thoughts, how they arise and fall away, impermanent and not us, then we can find the heart of the Buddha’s teachings coming alive in our awareness. That’s awakening!

A Triad of Collusion

toxic-symbol-3-poisonsWe have been looking at the Three Poisons, the patterns of reactivity that we humans tend to fall into, thus losing our ability to be awake to this moment. While the Poisons of aversion/hatred and greed/craving are fairly obvious to notice, it is much harder to tell when we are experiencing delusion. As I write this, outside my window is a thick January ground fog. How appropriate! Delusion masks the lay of the land. In class, during meditation, I heard fog horns out in the Bay. It could have been someone’s cell phone on vibrate instead of mute, but it sounded like a fog horn. Either way, it made me realize that as we investigate and discover delusion in our experience, we are a bit like ship captains recognizing fog, sounding our fog horns.

But with delusion, more often than not we don’t recognize the fog we are in as fog at all. If it’s a lifelong delusion, how could we know we’re in it? If someone told us we wouldn’t believe them. It is easier for us to see when someone else is walking around in a cloud of delusion. Can we cultivate compassion and understanding for them? When we are able to do that we discover that whatever aversion we may have had for them softens. We’re not buying into their myopic view, but we can feel compassion for them as fellow beings caught up in the suffering of delusion.

Once we have begun to recognize delusion in others, we can gently open to the possibility of the existence of delusion in our own experience. It’s tricky, but having extended compassion to someone else, we have the capacity to extend it to ourselves, allowing us to see delusion without aversion blocking our way. 

Delusion is manufactured and supported by the other two Poisons of greed and aversion. And in turn, delusion provides a blindness that is necessary to sustain craving and hatred.

Say, for example, as I am passing by an ice cream shop, craving arises. Delusion rushes to that craving’s aid by whispering very selective pieces of information, like how much protein there is in ice cream, or the memory of how as a child ice cream was a reward and a sign of parental affection, etc., and so I find myself standing at the counter reaching for that cone.

But before I can enjoy it, maybe aversion rushes in — shame on me, I’m so weak, etc. — supported by more selective bits of information about how much sugar and calories are in this cone, how fat I am, how people will be judging me, making the cone feel like a handful of embarrassment instead of a simple pleasure. Of course with all this going on, there’s not much room for being present with the experience of tasting and enjoying the flavor, texture, coldness, etc. so that I end up feeling both guilty and unsatisfied.

Whether or not you relate to this particular example, you can no doubt find other examples that show how the three Poisons support each other in what we might call a triad of collusion.

There are many more facets to delusion than just providing cover and shame in the purchase of an ice cream cone. There is a difficulty in seeing things as they are and a willingness to buy into stories that under analysis make no sense. These stories can be part of our family mythology that feel like the bond that holds family together. If you think about your family, notice if there are any unspoken agreements about how to explain uncomfortable things. You might think of it as the oil that makes the machinery of family run more smoothly. The story may have begun with the best of intentions, a white lie to avoid hurting people’s feelings or sharing what might be considered shameful truths. But the acceptance and solidifying of the lie into the family story is delusion in action, supported by the two other poisons: craving normalcy and hating to be seen as abnormal or immoral, etc. In class I shared a story from my own family, which is not for sharing on the internet, but it was a good example of the delusion of family mythology.

Our collective cultural mythology is supported by propaganda and our desire to be a part of something positive and powerful, not something subject to human failings. It’s frighteningly easy to prey on our human desires and aversions by fueling it with resonate selective truths or total fabrications. We can be suckers for persuasion if it plays into what we want to believe is true. Facts be damned! Again, it’s much easier to see how ‘the other side’ is delusional. The idea of there being sides may be the biggest delusion of all. Who knows?

Our ongoing investigation is asking, ‘How can I be in skillful compassionate relationship with this?’ When it comes to a body of information, especially the complex intricacies of the family mythology, perhaps the most skillful compassionate way is to acknowledge that we don’t know.

If the story is harming us, it’s worth investigating, getting beyond delusion. This is certainly the case in sustaining a viable democracy. Whether a bit of familial folklore is actually causing harm is debatable. But in either case, it’s skillful to recognize that we don’t know the whole truth. We can see how we have the tendency to cling to what we want to believe, and the tendency to believe anything negative about anyone we don’t like.

Can we see that our happiness is not dependent on any story being true or false? Whether it’s about ourselves, our family or our country, can we acknowledge that we don’t know everything? Can we be open to other views and new facts we hadn’t previously known? This kind of open exploration doesn’t threaten us. Our identity is not built on what we believe to be true being true! We can find a wonderful richness in being able to relax our stranglehold on our precious truths. We can hold them in an open embrace, look at them with a more discerning eye, and know that they do not define us.

‘I don’t know’ is a powerful liberating phrase. Once on a retreat I spent a whole day discovering the proverbial tip of the iceberg of all the things I don’t know, and seeing my assumptions of knowing fall by the wayside. For example, I was doing walking meditation across a patio of concrete squares, and there were some things I took for granted that I knew about them, but there was so much more that I didn’t know — how thick they were, what was under them, who laid them, where the material came from, etc. etc.

I looked at trees this way and discovered that my ‘knowledge’ about any given tree is only what I’ve been told or have learned from seeing fallen trees with innards exposed, but in fact I know very little about any particular tree — what all is going on inside, what life forms reside there, where the roots actually run underground, etc. The more I investigated, the more I realized I don’t know.

And that was a joyous recognition. Because there’s no way to know everything and I could let go of the presumption of knowing and the need to accumulate knowledge as if there will be a test. I can explore the world following whatever veins interest me, and learn as much or as little as I please, and no matter how much I learn, even about subjects I study in depth, there will always be lots of room for acknowledging that I don’t know, that the information I received is incomplete or misleading. Making room for that possibility, that likelihood, freed me from feeling incomplete for not knowing everything.

So joyful a discovery was this that I wrote a note to my teacher and pinned it on the board saying simply ‘I don’t know!!!’ A few hours later a note appeared on the board with my name on it and inside was her reply: ‘Yay!!!!’

Consider how, if you’ve ever looked through a microscope, you might have been astounded by the worlds within the world we think we know. The world as we know it is totally based on the lens of our own perceptions through senses that, while amazing, are quite limited. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know! So we stop assuming we do. Yay!

‘I don’t know’ may on the face of it seem like a delusional state, but it is not the dulled down ‘duh’ of delusion. Instead it is a sense of awakening to the interconnected complexity of all life’s systems, networks, patterns, infinitesimal to infinite space, all in a constant state of flux, expansion and contraction, in cycles of birth, growth, death, decay that nourishes new life. I am, you are, we all are, a part of all this, and for me that is more than enough to know! Even as I thirst for knowledge, it is enjoying the process of investigation rather than the idea of accumulation and becoming a walking encyclopedia of indisputable truths.

Sensing the infinite and interconnected complexity of life, perhaps we can relax our misguided efforts to be separate from it. We can let go of our need to stand out in a crowd in order to be admired or loved. Each of us is an intrinsic part of it all, radiating and receiving in every moment, a living breathing-thinking-feeling floating, ever-changing field of aliveness we call ‘me’. Whee!